From August 23rd to the 28th, tens of thousands of people descended on Washington, DC, to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, made famous by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
The nearly week-long festivities culminated on August 28th when President Barack Obama gave a speech on those same steps in front of the Great Emancipator.
Throughout it all, I kept asking myself, what would Lois say?
Lois worked as my family’s housekeeper, starting in the late 1950s, before I was born, until she died in 1975, when she was in her mid-60s and I was 14 years old.
Lois was African-American. She was born around 1910 in Spartanburg, South Carolina, the daughter of sharecroppers. Sometime after World War II, Lois moved north to Harrisburg, PA, where I was born. She followed her sister, Lillian, to escape a life of picking cotton in the south.
On August 28, 1963, when MLK gave his famous speech in Washington, Lois was helping my mother and father keep a household of eight children somewhat clean and organized – very clean and organized, for a family of that size.
I would’ve been two years old, a fat baby – my mother’s last and largest – that Lois helped care for. Did she know about Dr. King’s speech? Had she heard any of it?
There were many things I never knew about Lois, her life, her struggles, what it was like to be black in segregated America. She had a daughter, and a grandson who came to our house one time. But I never asked her much.
Why? Because I knew enough not to. I respected Lois.
Somehow I understood that it would be too awkward and embarrassing for both of us to try to breach the gulf between our lives. I was too young to know how.
Besides, I knew enough about what Lois had been deprived of because of the color of her skin.
An education, for one thing – Lois didn’t know how to read or write. I never heard her admit that, and no one in my family ever discussed it. But my older siblings helped her. Lois would bring her mail to the house and ask one of my siblings to read it, saying, “You know, my eyes…” as if her vision was to blame.
Around 1970, when Lois came into possession of a car – bought for her by her boyfriend, Mr. Ellison – my brothers helped her memorize the answers of the driver’s license exam. She remembered the correct answers by the way the written script appeared, and she memorized the colors and shapes of the road signs.
Lois passed the driver’s test and got her license. She no longer took the bus; she drove her car to and from our house, which was across the river from where she lived in Harrisburg.
Her car was huge – a white, four-door sedan she named “White Star.” My oldest brother, who was and is a car freak and mechanical genius, constantly tinkered with White Star. Its engine made a loud popping noise and belched a cloud of smoke when started, but my brother kept it running.
Mr. Ellison worked for a prominent Harrisburg family, which one time held a party for their staff. Lois was to attend as Mr. Ellison’s date. She was thrilled but nervous, and went to my mother for help. My mom told Lois to wear the black dress she owned, and my mom lent Lois a strand of pearls and a gold pin. Lois wore her wig, and a hat; she looked great and had a great time.
Every tax season, Lois brought her papers to my father, who filed her returns and paid her taxes. He was generous to Lois, and meticulous about her finances.
In 1969, when Apollo 11 landed on the moon, I remember watching the blurry live footage on TV. Afterward, Lois declared the moon landing a fake. I was baffled.
“But Lois, it was on TV,” I remember my 8-year-old self saying to her.
“So what?” she replied. “That don’t make it real.”
“But the government said so,” I said to her.
“Why should I believe what the government say?” Lois said back.
I’ll never forget how confused I was by her response. I had to grow up and learn more U.S. history before I understood why Lois couldn’t trust the government – which, among other things, didn’t even educate her.
Lois was small in stature. She was quiet and kind, but also smart and had spunk. She enjoyed teasing us kids, and being teased and pranked in return, especially by my second oldest brother, whom Lois adored.
Sometimes he’d hide her bucket; other times he’d hide himself in a closet and jump out to scare her when she entered the room. She’d scream, then laugh.
She liked to sing gospel hymns while she ironed or folded laundry. My brothers bought her steady supplies of Marlboro Red cigarettes and Schlitz beer. They called her “Losie.”
I can blame Lois for my life-long addiction to coffee. She turned me on to iced coffee when I was 5 years old. I’d come home from Kindergarten and meet Lois in the kitchen, where she’d pour us both a tall glass of iced coffee; she’d load mine with milk and sugar.
When Lois became sick with a steady cough, my mother had our family doctor examine her. He told my mom that Lois was riddled with cancer.
Lois insisted to my parents that she wanted to work as long as she could (they would’ve paid her regardless). So my mother made sure my sisters and I carried the laundry basket up and down the stairs, and my brothers helped with anything heavier. We had a big house, a big yard, and always plenty of chores to do; we didn’t mind doing more if it helped Lois.
She kept working until about six weeks before she died. Lois’s funeral was held on the day my sister had life-saving surgery after a serious car accident, so only about half of our family attended the funeral – my three brothers, my oldest sister, and myself.
Finally, I glimpsed what life had been like for Lois in terms of feeling out of place – we were the only white people at the funeral in the Baptist church in Harrisburg where Lois had worshipped.
What would Lois think about life in America today? I think she would’ve been happy – and amazed – to see a black man elected President, twice, and to see his family living in the White House. I hope she would’ve felt progress as well.
But I doubt Lois would be satisfied with America in 2013. The black-white economic gap has not budged in 50 years.
Honestly, I don’t know what Lois would think. My questions – about how she would respond to the March on Washington 50 years later – are not the point.
I wrote this post mainly to tell you a little about Lois Hamilton of Spartanburg, South Carolina. To tell you that Lois made a difference in my life.
To tell you that I loved her.
If you liked this post, please consider supporting scholarships for African-American college students by donating to the United Negro College Fund, a.k.a. UNCF, at www.uncf.org. “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”